Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Serving Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties

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June Positive Train Control Update

The December 31, 2015 deadline, as mandated by the U.S Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, for many freight lines and all intercity and commuter rail systems to install Positive Train Control (PTC), is a little more than 6 months away. The original impetus for this legislation was a deadly freight and commuter rail accident in 2008 while more recent commuter and intercity rail accidents have kept the spotlight on the need for this critical safety system. To date, we haven't talked much about our program, but SEPTA has been working continuously over the last 7 years to build and install a PTC system across our Regional Rail network. With the deadline so close we wanted to provide details about the final phases of work, particularly since there are now impacts to customers and service.

We're going to make this Positive Train Control Update a monthly customer communication to take you through the December 31st deadline and then into 2016 as we complete the last of the testing and fine-tuning of the system. So please bookmark this page as your official source for project information and progress posts.


Perhaps the best place to start is to define Positive Train Control. In the simplest terms, PTC is the next generation of signal safety equipment that works to further reduce the chance of human error. The Federal Railroad Administration is the regulatory agency responsible for determining if a commuter rail or freight carrier's signal system is compliant with the law.


A PTC compliant system can:

Regulate train separation

Avoid train-to-train collisions at track crossover locations

Enforce line speed continuously including temporary speed restrictions

Protect rail worker wayside safety zones

Regulate grade crossings that are out of service

Prevent a train from running over a mainline switch set in the wrong position


PTC is critically important to us because of the level of service we provide - 740 weekday trips operated by our 13 Regional Rail Lines; the hybrid nature of the right of way we operate on - some we control and share with independent freight carriers and some we share, by agreement with Amtrak; and the technological ability we now have to run our trains on all tracks, in all directions at any time. All these make for a sophisticated and complex operation so every resource we can employ and every tool we can provide our train personnel enhances the safe operation of our system and the safety of our customers, crews, and equipment.


PTC is a very ambitious program and there are relatively few systems across the nation, among them Amtrak and SEPTA, poised to meet the December 31st deadline. We know it's going to come down to the wire for us, but with a capital investment of $328 million and years of continuous intense work to upgrade signals, communication systems, vehicles, and installation of new systems for our Operations Control Center, we are working hard to meet the deadline.

To date, SEPTA has completed the following work:

1. Wayside signal systems installation - Substantially Complete

2. Communications systems installation - Substantially Complete

3. Control Center systems installation - 80% Complete

4. On Board Vehicle/Locomotive system installations -41% Complete

5. Frazer Yard Test Track Proof of Concept - 100% Complete


Installing the on board vehicle/locomotive systems is one of the biggest tasks still to complete for our PTC system and the work with the most direct impact on customers. For these very reasons you might wonder why this work wasn't done sooner. This is not off-the-shelf life safety equipment so developing design and engineering specifications for each of the different cars and locomotives in our fleet, developing the bid specifications, and procuring the materials was a lengthy and complex process for our contractor.

We are now working to modify and test each vehicle starting with our Silverliner IV fleet. Currently some 10 or more of these cars are out of revenue service, at a given time, to complete the retrofit work. Integrating new, computer based PTC equipment into our 40 year old fleet of Silverliner IV cars has been particularly challenging and often requires additional testing and troubleshooting. We anticipate fewer issues completing the retrofit work on the Silverliner V cars because integrating a computer based safety system into a vehicle designed on a computer based platform will make installation and testing more straightforward.

We're doing everything possible to minimize the inconvenience of the daily car shortages by trying to have only one less car on a train and not on consecutive days but there are times when this will happen. In a perfect scenario PTC would be the only work being done but we are also mandated by law to continue both regular and special car inspections, and the first blasts of summer heat have heightened the current car crunch because of unexpected equipment repairs.

With ridership at record breaking levels, taking even one car out of the revenue fleet can impact customers and service. We know that you've noticed and are annoyed by the shortages and crowding but we ask you to please bear with us while we complete this life-saving safety improvement work.

Work started on the car retrofit effort in April and is scheduled to be completed by November. As we come into the summer vacation season - a traditionally lower ridership period - our hope is that the problem may not be as acute. But it's not enough just to hope. We are looking at all possible options and opportunities to minimize car shortages. We will report on these efforts when we have more details.

Next month we will explain more about our PTC program and update you on our progress. We are working to complete the work by the federal deadline but the real urgency is maintaining the highest levels of safety on the system for our service and our customers. We greatly appreciate and thank you for your understanding.